BWW Review: SWEET LIKE CHOCOLATE BOY, Jack Studio Theatre
A theatre whose conversation is confined to a dialogue with itself or with its past, is a theatre that will die. So Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu's coruscating, energetic, flawed Sweet Like Chocolate Boy is an important play, but, like the foods we eat that improve our bodies rather than our body politic, it can be indigestible and make you wince.
Bounty and Mars are two black lads: Bounty born in 1979 in a comfortable house in the posh part of town; Mars early this century on an estate on the other side of the tracks. We follow Bounty's life from primary school kid to early adulthood through an episodic structure, the scenes separated by catch-ups with events in Mars's present day life. It feels as if there's a connection between the two and so it proves. Bounty is looking for an identity that fits a black boy surrounded by a suffocating white culture (Love Thy Neighbour on primetime television) while Mars deals with a different world, one with different challenges just as formidable.
En route, a cavalcade of characters and issues flood the set. Bounty runs into the crude racism of an ignorant friend who has been carefully taught by his National Front father, urban riots and the bespectacled Prophet, who has something Nation of Islam's radicalism about him. Mars, temporarily sectioned due to his mental health issues, meets a girl who has been "rescued" by her sinister white adoptive father and may be repeating his "rescues" with troubled black lads - a whiff of Get Out in that strand.
But all this tremendous dramatic potential is flattened by a torrent of words and parade of minor characters. Fynn-Aiduenu's has fallen for a common problem for the writer-director: he throws too much into the play, bloating it to two and a half hours (including the interval) and inviting his splendid and committed cast to portray four or five roles each. It's just too hard to keep up.
It's also tedious to hear characters report in events as monologues and, rather than give us the opportunity to discover their thoughts and emotions through observation of their words and deeds, simply announce (or shout) what they are feeling. "Show" is so much more aesthetically pleasing than "Tell" - and there's a lot of "Tell".
The two male leads are splendid - Andrew Umerah vesting Mars with a brittle cocksure confidence, swapping over to be threateningly charismatic as Prophet. Michael Levi Fatogun is just as good as Bounty, especially when we see him dance to the music of Rick Astley, thirty seconds that literally tells you everything you need to know about why his nickname is so apt and how lost he is in the black culture he is discovering. He's also chilling in his portrayal of the white "rescuer" father, all surface charm and deep condescension.
Veronica Beatrice Lewis plays the female roles (which are less fully realised), strutting as sexed-up Sandra, creepy as psychology student / predator Fantasia and confident as Bounty's girlfriend, Michelle.
Perhaps the best thing about the play is its thoroughgoing use of the discourse of the street as it is spoken today, supplemented by a crash course in the development of urban music (the term is now contested) over the last three decades. London's theatre, for all its variety and quality, largely ignores culture as it emerges from the estates and schools, the future created daily, while writers and directors look on, disdainful in effect if not always intention.
Ultimately, I left feeling that the production was more a work-in-progress for a fine 90 minutes play that comprised half the characters and half the storylines, but all of the vernacular, all of the music and all of the energy. Now that would be really sweet.